“If we were guided only by precedent, manifestly nothing in our procedures would ever change.”
With these words in January Speaker Bercow justified reportedly over-ruling the clerk of the house along with precedent in order to accept an amendment to the business motion from Dominic Grieve. The role, rights and responsibilities of the Speaker are very powerful within the House of Commons as the referee who can enforce the rules of the Commons guided by precedent – but also as shown in January to create and change these rules.
Speaker Bercow’s controversial decision in January has been far from the only breach of precedent in how our politicians are acting over this year. As the divisions over Brexit have increased into a state virtually of all out war, concerns over respect for precedent and what may come next are increasing playing second fiddle to winning at all cost. The danger of discarding precedence and impartiality is that those who follow may choose to use their powers to their own partisan benefit. While if powers are going to be used to seek partisan advantage, our politicians might seek to ensure the advantage goes to their side – the danger of an American-style partisan Speaker is very real.
For over 300 years no Speaker has lost a re-election battle but the notion that the Speaker won’t be stood against is a rule more honoured in the breach than in the observance. Speaker Weatherill faced opposition from both Labour and the SDP in 1987.
Like Douglas Adams The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, a “trilogy in four parts” then a “trilogy in five parts”, Speaker Bercow is currently serving his tenth year of a nine year term. If there is an election soon then the Conservatives could stand a candidate in Buckingham , which if successful would mean that a new Speaker would need to be elected for the new Parliament in very febrile times.
If a new Speaker is required then the betting markets on the next Speaker could soon be settled and the result of a General Election could affect the style of Speaker we see next. Might the Commons seek to constrain the government with another outspoken Speaker, or seek a truly neutral referee – or could a majority government seek to use its majority to get a Speaker more favourable to the government and their agenda?
Odds-on favourite Lindsay Hoyle would be an excellent choice to be Speaker, a long-serving Deputy Speaker who would be expected to maintain the roles desired impartiality. At longer odds 25/1 for Frank Field could also be an interesting choice – formerly of Labour, Frank Field could as an independent hold Birkenhead and is one of the few left-wing Brexiteers in the Commons.
Or could the former head of the ERG himself seek to go from Leader of the House to Speaker of the House? 25/1 for JRM would normally be funding the bookies Christmas Funds but if as expected we have a general election and the polls are accurate then Boris Johnson’s Brexiteers are on course to win a majority and they may want to put one of their own in the Speaker’s chair, that’s certainly more than a 4% chance.
Philip Thompson is a long standing PBer and this is his debut piece.